Tag Archives: dérive

The Urban and non-Urban Delights of Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth is quite wonderful in terms of the interesting, the beautiful, the strange. Its cult 60s upper floor brutalist diner.

Aberystwyth

Its interior decoration.

Aberystwyth

Its basement of books.

Aberystwyth

Its splendour of shop windows.

Aberystwyth

Its rumble of bikers on sunny days.

Aberystwyth

Its gangsters or the sweeney or the owners of the funicular railway?

Aberystwyth

The view over Aberystwyth in the UKs largest camera obscura

Aberystwyth

The view heading back down on the funicular railway:

Aberystwyth

A genuine welsh choir

Aberystwyth

A site of the first protest for the survival and revival  of the Welsh language.

Aberystwyth

The city itself charms, it is amazing the difference paint makes to pebbledash, which I can never find other than utterly grim when left unpainted. I care not how it weathers rain. The streets wind, open up on new vistas. There are a scattering of large stone buildings, some old beamed things. This old pub still has this small area in front of it expanding the public space of the street — once common here, or so the plaque says. Such a brilliant space.

Aberystwyth

And again I am reminded the importance of paint, but also the bow windows and the variegated surface, the light and shadow and interest this creates.

Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth

Beyond the castle rises Pen Dinas Hill Fort, built around 400 BC. Every town should have one of these. As we climbed, we were also able to look down on preparations for a day of horse racing. And we met the loveliest dog.

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Katowice: City of the Unseen

I loved Katowice. You will not be surprised after I confess my love of street art, of contrast, of things that are not pinned down in their disinfected cleanliness and their frozen historicities and false fronts but that are in various stages of subsiding or becoming. I find these places full of possibility. Palimpsests of all that has been, visible in crumblings and peeling paint, all that could be in the fanciful newness and bright colour, growth made possible through the crumbling itself. Above all an opportunity for imagination.

Katowice

The strange feeling that something, something had happened here behind this door.

Katowice

The how-on-earth of a caravan behind another door of faded magnificence:

Katowice

The courtyards that lie behind each arch — spaces full of corners, the unseen. Spaces allowed to retain a fullness of mystery and hints of green spaces.

Katowice

It is mystery, perhaps, that I loved most. Not knowing what lies around those corners. Modern constructions leave no spaces unseen like this, never frame space so beautifully, never encourage. exploration in this way, and definitely do not age with such fascination.

Katowice

Unless, of course, modern constructions are built in contrast to the older forms. Then they startle, provide difference. I confess I quite love these towers, their geometries, their thoughtfulness in granting all tenants views and light. I only wish they were a little closer, instead of isolating residents away from the movement and life of the city.

Katowice

Here too, just as in its deeply contrasted satellites Nikiszowiec and Giszowiec, the central mines hovers above and between buildings, filling the view with the memory of the coal that helped bring it to life.

Katowice

Katowice

There is also the great wide center, full of people, buildings representing a different kind of glass-and-steel modernity contrasting with these older streets, and a working public transportation system. I actually like this center as it sits in contrast to other things. I imagine, however, it might be a bit arctic in winter.

Katowice

Beauty and humour abounds here, and it is vibrant with life.

Katowice

Katowice

Katowice

Katowice

Katowice

A little more of the art & design that I loved:

Katowice

Katowice

Katowice

Katowice

Katowice

Katowice

This place illustrates many of the principles of creating fascinating human city-scapes explored by people like Cullen and Alexander, I only wish we had had a little more time to explore this city.

Katowice

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Guy Debord on psychogeography & the dérive

7041009With my article on psychogeography and race and the city done and dusted and accepted by Salvage, I suppose I should finally finish off these half finished blogs collecting my favourite quotes from tom mcdonaugh’s wonderful book of new translations, the situationists and the city. There were a  lot of them, too many for one post really, so I’ve mixed it up a bit with Wark’s Beach Beneath the Street to look at Constant and Jorn, my favourite piece by Ivan Chtcheglov and adventures in Limehouse. This one on Guy Debord, and one more and then I am done.

I liked Chtcheglov’s piece so much more than these more widely quoted pieces from Guy Debord, but they’re still interesting. Also infuriating.  From ‘Introduction to a critique of urban geography’
(Les Lèvres nues no. 6 (September 1955)):

Of the many sagas in which we take part, with or without interest, the sole thrilling direction remains the fragmentary search for a new way of life.

I do like that very much. But then there comes the causal reference to an ‘illiterate Kabyle’ that I hate, and hate also that he (or she) remains unnamed. It taints the definition that follows, though it is an interesting one…

The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle to designate the general phenomena with which a few of us were preoccupied around the summer of 1953, is relatively defensible. It does not stray from the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature… Psychogeography will aim to study the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic milieu, consciously planned or not, acting directly on the affective comportment of individuals.

I enjoy their fanciful parallels:

It has already been a long time that one has been able to say the desert is montheistic. Would it seem illogical, or devoid of interest, to declare that the quarter running in Paris between the Place de la Contrescarpe and the rue de l’Arbaléte inclines rather to atheism, to oblivion, and to the disorientation of customary routines?

I like this as well, with its quote that brings us back to King Lear, or Faulkner, both of whom would have found Haussman rather incomprehensible. I do wonder how historical it is for governments to want open spaces for the rapid circulation of troops however, so what exactly is he trying to say there…

It is right to possess a historically relative idea of the utilitarian. The concern to have at one’s disposal open spaces allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections was at the origin of the beautification plan adopted by the Second Empire. But from any standpoint other than that of law and order, Haussman’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (59)

On privilege, of which Guy Debord had more than a little really, and some other interesting things:

Since we run into, even with such slight justification, the idea of privilege, and since we know with what blind fury so many people–who are nevertheless so little privileged–are willing to defend their mediocre advantages, we are forced to declare that all these details partake of an idea of happiness, a received idea among the bourgeoisie, maintained by a system of advertising that includes Malraux’s aesthetics as well as the imperatives of Coca-Cola, and whose crisis must be provoked on every occasion, by every means.

The first of these means are undoubtedly the spreading, with an aim of systematic provocation, of a host of proposals tending to make of life an integral, thrilling game, and the unceasing depreciation of all customary amusements… (60)

The revolutionary transformation of the world, of all aspects of the world, will prove right all the dreams of abundance.

The abrupt change of environment in a street, within the space of a few meters; the obvious division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the strongly sloping contour (with no relation to the unevenness of the terrain) that aimless walks must follow; the appealing or repellent nature of certain places–all this seems to be neglected. (61)

I love the description of beauty here:

…in speaking here of beauty I don’t have in mind plastic beauty–the new beauty can only be a beauty of situation–but solely the particularly moving presentation, in one case and the other, of a sum of possibilities.

But I am not so sure of the usefulness of impostures in achieving any kind of aims at all, much as I love their maps:

situationist-mapThe forging of psychogeographic maps, and even various impostures like correlating (with little justification or even completely arbitrarily) two topographical representation, can contribute to illuminating certain displacements of a nature indeed not so much gratuitous but utterly insubordinate to usual attractions–attractions of this order being catalogues under the term tourism, that popular drug as repugnant as sports or purchasing on credit. (62)

So I’ll just throw in a few quotes from ‘Plan for rational improvements to the city of Paris’ (Potlatch no. 23, 13 October 1955), that exemplify all of the division of my feelings between loving their challenge and their call to reimagine the city, retheorise the city, rethink how we live in the city and move through it — and everything else that shows a lack of empathy, compassion, respect or connection to the real struggles of the time.

Everyone agrees to reject the aesthetic objection, to silence the admirers of the portal of Chartres. Beauty, when it is not a promise of happiness, must be destroyed.

On trains:

Gil J. Wolman demanded the complete suppression or falsification of all information about departures (destinations, times, etc). This would encourage dérive.

I was trying to imagine the chaos this would cause with trains, the lifeline between myself and my own true love and the horrible thought of heading in an opposite direction from him when trying to get to Bristol and wanting to hit Mr. Gil J. Wolman. Is a dérive forced upon you by a half-baked French intellectual still a dérive? I think not.

This same article asks

Is it possible to see a cemetery without thinking of Mauriac, Gide or Edgar Faure? (70)

Which I found somehow irrepressibly funny for some reason, but that brought to mind another ridiculous prank by Marcel Mariën as related in ‘The Commanders Gait’ (Les Lèvres nues no. 5, June 1955) where he moved crosses around in a graveyard to be playful, to ‘favourably stimulate the minds of those who visited this spot…’ (57).

Fuck that guy, even if this is simply a provocation. What made it worse was that he wanted to move rich people’s grave markers but they’re all massive stone things, so instead he wrote of moving the humble wooden crosses of the poor, fucking with people’s relationships with their dead and every belief they hold most dear, rather than their perceptions of space or any empty boredom of their lives (presuming this exists).  It highlights the arrogance of young intellectuals who think they know best, which means they are never able to think very deeply or learn from who and what is around them. To me this kind of thing (and it is hardly unique) makes harder attempts to take seriously this movement more or less as a whole.

So I’ll return to fragments… back to to Guy Debord, and the ‘Theory of the dérive’ (Les Lèvres nues, no. 9, November 1956)

I enjoyed the dig at the surrealists:

An insufficient distrust of chance, and of its always reactionary ideological use, condemned to a dismal failure the famous directionless ramble undertaken in 1923 by four Surrealists… (79)

But on the whole I found this less interesting than I had hoped, being very definitional…useful but not so interesting.

Dérive‘s lessons permit the drawing up of the first surveys of the psychogeographic articulations of a modern city. Beyond the reconnaissance of unitary ambiances, of their main components, and of their spatial localization, their principal axes of passage, their exits, and their defenses would be perceived.

This I liked, but it’s fairly obvious after all:

The distances that effectively separate two regions of a city are measured, distances that cannot be gauged with what the approximate vision of a map may have you believe.

Such certainty, I can’t imagine feeling this kind of certainty about everything, whether hopeful posturing or not:

Everything leads us to believe that the future will precipitate the irreversible transformation of current society’s comportment and setting. One day, cities will be built for dérive. Certain areas that already exist may be used, with relatively light touching up. Certain people that already exist may be used. (85)

What is it about Guy Debord that makes me hope his vision of city built for dérive won’t actually come true?

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Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism

7041009This has been my favourite of all of the works that poured from the pens of lettrists and situationists and all the -ists of the place and period. These quotes are drawn from the translation of tom mcdonaugh’s the situationists and the city, which was for the most part a truly inspired collection, and wonderful to read in rapid succession to The Beach Beneath the Streets.  Nice to see Mike Davis there in the acknowledgments as well, for his inspiration and encouragement of the project.

I intend to find out more of Ivan Chtcheglov — or Gilles Ivain, but these are my favourite bits from ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ from the Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958). I love the opening:

We are bored in the city, there is no longer any temple of the sun. Between the legs of women walking by the Dadaists would have liked to find an adjustable wrench, and the Surrealists a crystal goblet–that’s lost.

I think of Aragon and Breton, all that is missing from their work, I somehow love this first sentence. It gets better from there:

All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts, bearing all the prestige of their legends. We maneuver within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of folkloric tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, Mammoth Cave, mirrors of Casinos. (33-35)

It is not often I love the complicated and baroque, the privilege of boredom, but I swooned a little over cities geological. Realised much of what I seek in my rambles through the city are indeed the original conceptions of space (though more than that, how they lead you to a taste the original experiences, because how else can you feel the weight of past lives lived in dialectical relation to such spaces?).

Then on to architecture and all it can be, all it can do:

Architecture is the simplest means to articulate time and space, to modulate reality, to engender dreams. It is not only a matter of plastic articulation and modulation–expression of an ephemeral beauty–but of a modulation producing influences, in accordance with the eternal spectrum of human desires and progress in the realization of those desires. (36)

and this:

I will quickly recall the bases of architecture:
– a new conception of space (whether based on a religious cosmogony or not).
– a new conception of time (numeration starting from zero, various ways for time to unfold).
– a new conception of comportment (in moral nature, sociology, politics, law. the economy is only one part of the laws of comportment to which a civilization agrees). (36)

In thinking about what most modern architecture provides us in terms of new conceptions of space, time and comportment, I despair. My walks up and down the Thames (and any river in any city) reveal all the terrible truth of the following statement, particularly in regards to the construction of new luxury development, new ‘public’ but always mostly privatised space:

A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization. (36)

We quarrel, however, Chtcheglov and I, over the possible cure. Still, he is delightfully inventive:

The ideal city would be built in quarters — the Bizarre Querter, Happy Quarter, Noble and Tragic Quarter, and perhaps also a Death Quarter, not for dying in but in which to live in peace, and here I think of Mexico and a principle of innocent cruelty that becomes dearer to me each day. (40)

A bit confusing and a little patronising, this innocent cruelty, but I will let it go…

We move into city as process, as activity, as the building of the collective and the need for the spiritual aspect of life in its fulness:

The principle activity of the inhabitants will be CONTINUOUS DÉRIVE. The changing landscape from one hour to the next will result in complete disorientation. (40)

…a people cannot live on dérive alone…Experience demonstrates that a dérive favourably replaces a mass; it is better fitted to introduce the whole of our energies into communication, to collect them for the benefit of the collectivity. (41)

It seems to me this presents insight after insight in vibrant language and then leaves you alone to think about it. I much prefer it to Debord, but Chtcheglov was removed from these intellectual debates through institutionalisation, which breaks my heart a little. McKenzie Wark writes:

After he was institutionalized, Chtcheglov would write Debord and Bernstein from the sanatorium explaining that the dérive has its limits, and cannot be practiced continually. “It’s a miracle it didn’t kill us. Iron infected our blood.”3 To even propose a new architecture for a new way of life took more resources than they possessed. The complete renunciation of what one might now call middle-class life cut them off from vital resources. (146) (from Beach Beneath a Street)

There is little more about Gilles Ivain here, or elsewhere that focuses on the situationists. The toll of mental illness and the lack of sympathy and understanding perhaps, alongside the toll of intellectual inquiry and the struggle for change.

chtcheglov1

 
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The Situationist Beach Beneath the Street

10325403If anyone can rescue the Situationist International from a descent into artistic inconsequentiality, it is McKenzie Wark. I always saw amongst their work sparks of interest, but limited sparks. Dying embers maybe. This shifted some of my thinking, and there is a lot here, I think, that continues to demand theoretical and practical work. Perhaps because it is firmly rooted in practice, written by someone who wishes to change the world. Changing the world is always where I though the Situationists fell down the most, their self-published words and collages  greatly removed from the very really battles then and now shaping the dialectic between our physical environment and our lives and the shape of our thought. Where their work is useful for imagining change, you can find it here, and in a lovely selection of their own words in tom mcdonaugh’s edited collection the situationists and the city. But more on that soon, with more focus on their work itself.

Before Wark I hadn’t quite realised just how much thought the situationists had put into this relationship between space and life, between cities and residents.

As Guy Debord later wrote:

It is known that initially the Situationists wanted at the very least to build cities, the environment suitable to the unlimited deployment of new passions. But of course this was not easy and so we found ourselves forced to do much more.”*

I don’t know that their journey into art and abstraction did in fact do more, but the impulse behind it is clear. But first some situationist basics — basics often left out of accounts of their work I find, as these were basics I did not know:

The Situationist International was founded at a meeting of three women and six men in July 1957. All that remains of this fabled event are a series of stirring documents and some photographs, casual but made with an artist’s eye, by founding member Ralph Rumney.1 The Situationist International dissolved itself in 1972. In its fifteen years of existence, only seventy-two people were ever members. It was born out of the fusion of two and a half existing groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Society (the last represented by its one and only member, Rumney). Its founding conference took place in Cosio di Arroscia a little Ligurian town where founding member Piero Simondo’s family had a small hotel. Or at least that’s the official story. Debord writes in a letter to Jorn: “I think it is necessary for us to present the ‘Conference at Cosio’ as a point of departure for our distinct organized activity.”2 From the beginning, Debord has a fine hand for the tactics of appearances. (145-146)

And perhaps they were a bit more on the edge of struggle than many others in the French intellectual establishment. I laughed out loud (on the tube no less) at this I’m afraid:

If anything, theory has turned out even worse. It found its utopia, and it is the academy. A colonnade adorned with the busts of famous fathers: Jacques Lacan the bourgeoismagus, Louis Althusser the throttler-of-concepts, Jacques Derrida the dandy-of-difference, Michel Foucault the one-eyed-powerhouse, Gilles Deleuze the taker-from-behind. Acolytes and epigones pace furiously up and down, prostrating themselves before one master—Ah! Betrayed!—and then another. The production of new dead masters to imitate can barely keep up with consumer demand, prompting some to chisel statues of new demigods while they still live: Alain Badiou the Maoist-of-the-matheme, Giorgio Agamben the pensive-pedant, Slavoj Žižek the neuro-Hegelian-joker.5 (17)

It was probably Derrida, the dandy-of-difference that did it. There are a few other digs at academia that I enjoyed immensely:

If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them. That it is a form of bourgeois thought is attested by the status of the real in Lacanian doctrine. (216)

This also:

Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance to something or other. Détournement, on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game. (102)

But I think I like with where he is headed with this low theory idea:

What is lost is the combined power of a critique of both wage labor and of everyday life, expressed in acts. What has escaped the institutionalization of high theory is the possibility of low theory, of a critical thought indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world. A low theory dedicated to the practice that is critique and the critique that is practice.” (19)

I also like the rescuing of the group from the great-man driven rememberings, and the placing of them in concrete moments of space and time.

Even when the Situationists are treated as a movement, the supposedly minor figures often drop out of the story, or become mere props to the great men among them. Alternatively, in order to make a coherent narrative and write the biography of a movement as if it were a subject, the differences among its members are suppressed, or turned into the stakes of a mere drama of personalities.9 Here, instead, is a large cast of disparate characters, some more celebrated than others, where Guy Debord and Asger Jorn rub shoulders with Patrick Straram, Michèle Bernstein, Ralph Rumney, Pinot Gallizio, Jacqueline de Jong, Abdelhafid Khatib, Alexander Trocchi and René Viénet. Where they come together, where they create something, is a situation. But situations are temporary, singular unities of space and time. They call for a different kind of remembering. (21-22)

Which has to go alongside Debord’s particular talents for promotion:

Guy Debord spent a lot of time working on how to remember situations, how to document them and keep them in a way that could ignite future possibilities. For the most part, he created legends. ” (24-25)

I quite love this summing up of Debord as well,

Debord was in search, not of the organic intellectuals of the working class, but of what one might call the alcoholic intellectuals of the non-working classes.  (50)

I should probably end the blog on that high note, but no. Still, alcohol and drugs play a heightened kind of role that makes me wary, as I usually find they make people intensely boring. But some of the other things on this list are interesting:

Here are some techniques for discovering the way into the total semantic field that they détourned, alone or in combination: alcohol (Debord), opium (Trocchi), psychosis (Chtcheglov), mania (Spur), synaesthesia (de Jong), fatigue (the dérive), obsession (Constant), love (Bernstein), revolution (May ’68), solitude (late Debord). (361)

I’ve already posted some of the choice insults hurled at Le Corbusier, but there is quite a lot of insight here about just why he should be their sworn enemy — because of so much in common:

Le Corbusier was the bête noire of the whole Situationist project, but it is worth pausing to consider what the thinking of Le Corbusier and Chtcheglov had in common. Le Corbusier wrote that “architecture, which is a thing of plastic emotion, should, in its domain, also begin at the beginning, and use elements capable of striking our senses, of satisfying our visual desires, and arrange them in such a way that the sight of them clearly affects us through finesse or brutality, tumult or serenity, indifference or interest.”4 This understanding of the city as a totality of sensory and emotional affects, this at least they share. (57)

There is also this curious passage I am still pondering, since I am in the midst of writing a little about their relationship to France as Colonial power and to the struggle of Algerians — which is to say, their lack of one in any but a very tangential way which is vaguely disapproving of it all. Wark writes:

A Situationist ethnography has its own distinct methods. It emerges out of Debord’s close study of Saint-Germain delinquents. It adopts their habits, their ethnos, and turns it into method. The Letterist International are ethnographers of their own difference, cartographers of an attitude to life. This life did not lie outside the modern, Western one, but inside, in the fissures of its cities. It did not yearn for a primitive life from before history, but rather for one that was to come after it. In the life of the Saint-Germain delinquents’ tribe could be found particles of the future, not the past, and not from some colonial Donogoo Tonka but from the very epicenter of what history had wrought: the colonization of everyday life at the heart of empire. (61)

I am still not sure how this fits with the times they were living in, not clearly demarcated or described here, sadly. The civil war with Algeria, freedom fighters who have taken up arms and are giving their lives on a massive scale in both Algeria and France itself to free themselves from a physical colonization, the fall of French government after government through their failure to subdue this revolution, the curfew against Arabs. These highlight a difference treated very differently than any the situationists might have experienced. It bothers me immensely, this privileged ability to think completely outside life and death struggle, with the exception of Abdelhafid Khatib of the Algerian section. And so I think something vital is missing from this description — and yet it contains much to think about all the same:

What meaning can there be in the freedom to walk at night, through the Paris of the mid 1950s, the curfew of the occupation lifted and the curfew of the Algerian war not yet descended? The dérive appears almost as if it is a direct answer to this question. The dérive is the experimental mapping of a situation, the trace of the probabilities of realizing a desire. There is still the police to contend with, and delinquent Letterists and their friends would occasionally end up in jail for the night. But the dérive is more than the no-man’s-land between consciousness and facticity, for-itself and in-itself, freedom and constraint. It is rather the flux, the monist dialectic, which produces as one of its effects the experience of the gap between in-itself and for-itself in the first place.

Practices like dérive, détournement and potlatch, which will become the defining practices of the Situationist International, produce among other things the possibility of new concepts outside of Sartrean dualism. The interest is not in consciousness and its freedom, but in the production of new situations as an end in themselves. (140-141)

This brings us to the dérive and almost past it (apologies for liking dérive so much more than détournements), but I hadn’t yet stumbled across the meanings of the word itself:

It’s a curious word. A note in the Letterist International’s journal Potlatch gives some of its resonances. Its Latin root “derivare” means to draw off a stream, to divert a flow. Its English descendants include the word “derive” and also “river.” Its whole field of meaning is aquatic, conjuring up flows, channels, eddies, currents, and also drifting, sailing or tacking against the wind. It suggests a space and time of liquid movement, sometimes predictable but sometimes turbulent. The word dérive condenses a whole attitude to life, the sort one might acquire in the backwaters of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. (62-63)

I like thinking of it as a new way of being in the world, a new practice:

The dérive cuts across the division of the space of the city into work, rest and leisure zones. By wandering about in the space of the city according to their own sense of time, those undertaking a dérive find other uses for space besides the functional. The time of the dérive is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. It is a time that plays in between the useful and the gratuitous. Leisure time is often called free time, but it is free only in the negative, free from work. But what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive. The breakaway Letterist International created a new practice, a new way of being in the world, out of which to derive a new kind of practice. (68)

I like thinking of it as a new kind of knowledge:

The Letterist International invent a new kind of knowledge, a street ethnography, whose primary method is the dérive. What the dérive discovers is psychogeography: the lineaments of intersubjective space. In place of the chance encounters of the surrealists, they create a practice of play and strategy which invents a way of being, outside of commodified time and outside of the separate disciplines of knowledge—including geography. Henceforth the city will not be a site for fieldwork but a playing field, in which to discover intimations of a space and time outside the division of labor. The goal is nothing less than to invent a new civilization which will make a mark on historical time with the grandeur of the Temple of the Sun. (75-76)

Of course ‘The dérive was an intervention against geography as much as against psychoanalysis.’ (71) And thus:

“Psychogeography is a practice of the city as at once an objective and subjective space. It is not the city as mere prompt for surrealist reveries. Nor is it a thing apart, to be dissected by social science, no matter how well-meaning. The city of Debord, Chtcheglov and their friends is a complex beast, always in process, with its own rhythms and life cycle, as it is for Chombart.(74)

City as form AND process, change, movement. All those things most academics had never seen before. I had never realised just how much in dialogue this movement was with the thinking and theorising of Henri Lefebvre, cited continually these days as a kind of founder of the “spatial turn” and an end to treating space as simply a backdrop or container.  I knew a vague relationship but they complement each other so well, surely drove each other on. What I have always loved about Lefebvre is his understanding of this:

In Lefebvre the real is the fulcrum of action …It is by attempting to transform everyday life that the contours of the real are encountered. (217)

It is in struggle that we encounter the limits — they are only imagined until we actually try and shift something. I imagine they are not really where many academics believe them to be. This is where I think the usefulness of Lefebvre’s thought and Situationist practice may come to the fore, but only where linked to the brutal fighting now taking place in almost all cities — over segregation, displacement, gentrification, redevelopment or actual occupation. Not to displace play, but to ensure it helps us fight harder against injustices, rather than make it easier to submit to them or worse benefit from them, even as others suffer.

This is why I have always been sceptical of so much of this movement, why this slogan of Debord’s has always bothered me, though this is perhaps its best possible defense:

Debord’s first major work, by his own later accounts, was a simple three-word graffiti that translates as “Never work!”23 Rather than reduce the working hour, avoid it as much as possible. But if there is no work, then there is no leisure either. It is rather like Nietzsche’s annunciation of the death of God which is also the death of a certain understanding of Man, since God and Man form a conceptual couple, each made in the other’s image.24 Debord’s “Never work!” frees time from its binary form of work time and leisure time. The dérive then becomes the practice of lived time, time not divided and accorded a function in advance; a time inhabited by neither workers nor consumers. (69)

Still. I am still thinking it through, still sifting for what is meaningful. A few last thoughts —

Psychogeography made the city subjective and at the same time drew subjectivity out of its individualistic shell. It is a therapy aimed not at the self but at the city itself…

And it is a collective one. The derive is best carried out in groups.I like the idea of the collective, though the Lettrists and Situationists spent a lot of energy fighting amongst themselves and expelling people from the movement.

Wark makes this final point, and I am still not sure what i think about it, but again, find it worth thinking about:

The Letterist International discovered the power of a kind of negative action. They show what cannot be done within the limits of actually existing capitalism. (81)

and again

“The Letterist International passes on to the Situationist International the practice of a negative action, which lays bare the gap between everyday life in twentieth century capitalism, and what it leaves to be desired. (110)

Did it? Perhaps it did.

A few other tidbits — the city as pinball machine:

Debord and Wolman had already proposed a détournement of pinball, in which the “play of the lights and the more or less predictable trajectories of the balls would form a metagraphic-spatial composition entitled Thermal Sensations and Desires of People Passing by the Gates of Cluny Museum Around an Hour After Sunset in November.”13 They abandoned this idea, for Paris was already a pinball machine. All that remained was to bounce around it like a shiny silver ball, and find its psychogeographic centers of gravity. (185)

We too stumbled around the Cluny Museum at regular intervals in our brief Paris stay. So returning to this made me laugh.

I knew nothing of this playfulness with language, but I like it:

Produced outside of the Situationist International and without Trocchi, the Situationist Times turned out to be a somewhat different beast. It was multilingual, and even its English-language texts were written in what one might now call netlish—transnational English unapologetically cast as a second language patterned after the writer’s first language.25 The era of French as the lingua franca of the avant-garde was over. (271)

The book ends on a good note as well, with what continues of the situationist project today, détourned as of course, it must be:

What continues unabated, regardless of what anyone writes, is the détournement of the Situationist project. Beneath the pavement, the beach. Wherever the boredom with given forms of art, politics, thought, everyday life jackhammers through the carapace of mindless form, the beach emerges, where form is ground down to particles, to the ruin of ruins. There lies what the old mole is always busy making: the materials for the construction of situations. (366)

Of the many things I’ve been reading on the legacy of the situationists lately, this is far and away the best.

[Wark, McKenzie. (2011) The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso.]

* From Guy Debord, “On Wild Architecture,” in Elizabeth Sussman (ed.), On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957–1972, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1989, p. 174.”

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Prague Walks: The Big Picture

So much focus on details and beautiful craftsmanship (doors! naked statues! the terror of cherubs!) along with Kafka (I’ve been reading and greatly enjoying Bohumil Hrabal and Karel Čapek, and Čapek is perhaps my favourite yet their words don’t map onto the city as much as Kafka — surprisingly). I’ve maybe missed the big picture, the feel of the streets and the city itself. So here it is. Starting with a bit of the town just outside the tourist quarter walking east, and then heading down to the river and along to reach some of the more well-known vistas:
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There are these beautiful streets in Mala Strana, NE of the Charles Bridge (packed with people and thus fairly horrible and we mostly avoided it entirely):

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Then you turn up through this beautiful arch, climb up towards the castle area, stare out over the city. One of my favourite things is the SF space station away in the distance (I know, I know it’s really something else):
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You come down the other side, towards the street where the Čapeks lived, where together they invented the word robot (I’m sure I have mentioned that already, it was most exciting)

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Their vista
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One of the most beautiful turnings in the world
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You continue down and cross the bridge again, we didn’t make it as far down as Vyšehrad, but there are beautiful modern buildings to be found here, This surprise glass walkway:
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Gehry’s Dancing House (1996):
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The wonderful Manes Gallery:
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There are some really interesting contrasts between the old and the new:IMG_9329

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Prague had some tagging going on, but wasn’t too full of street art. Still, we found this:
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And this wonderful trompe l’oeil:

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And then just vista after vista of the beautiful and the unexpected, the non-sanitised splendour as you wander:
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So that the tourist trail packed (and I mean packed, even in November) across the Charles bridge:IMG_9510
Down into the main square with its extraordinary clocks (which I loved despite the hordes):

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Even that square in the sunset: IMG_9596
was hardly the most beautiful place. I’m glad there is a centre and a focus for most tourists, I almost felt bad wandering the places many others didn’t seem to go, because I imagine Prague’s residents are even more protective of their city and their space. It is hard to imagine it as it was before the industry of travel, though on many of the more distant streets this seems possible. Still, I am so glad, feel so lucky, that I have had the opportunity to go.

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More beautiful things in the Czech Republic

We stayed a week in Liberec while my partner lectured at the
Technická univerzita v Liberci, getting the chance to visit Ještěd Tower, which I have already written about, but also see a bit of the countryside. The rolling hills of the north are simply beautiful, mist-filled, green. We rolled through them on our train on the way to Hodvokice, just as filled with beautiful craftsmanship as Prague really, and of the kind I like more as it not as cherubbed and otherwise statued. This house I fell in love with, it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen I think — the day was a terrible one for taking pictures however, so apologies:

IMG_9161The most stunning windows, and the detailing exquisite. The town’s wealth seemed to come from this factory — textiles perhaps, as Liberec? I am unsure, but it is also beautiful from the outside. Strange to stare at a factory and have not the slightest context for what it is, who works (or worked) there, what that is like. IMG_9169
I am, of course, obsessed by details and found some more door knobs for my collection:

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There was also a wide use of tiles, as in much of Prague, and though some might have seen better days, they were still beautiful.

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Just like the town itself.

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Perhaps even more than in Prague — where beauty could possibly be seen as a project of Empire — I was so impressed by all that was functional yet exquisite:

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Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the way that this craftsmanship seems to also fill the countryside — the antithesis of the hamlets of the Southwestern U.S. I know so well, which are always interesting but rarely beautiful and often creepy. But everything was well cared for and this kind of work very common:

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We came to this beautiful old place as well, now tragically falling down.

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We were walking up to Sychrov Castle, bought (as one of several) after the French Revolution by some aristocrats who had managed to keep most of their money. Their connections to the Bourbons fill the place through its decorations and carvings — and the carvings are exquisite. I didn’t take pictures inside, but here is a view of some of the details I did capture.

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IMG_9228And a view of the castle as a whole — again, far removed from what an English castle looks like:
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From the castle we walked down to another small village to catch the train back — you can wander over the tracks at will and the ‘industrial’ area alongside was very cool.IMG_9278
I know I have used the word beautiful far too much, but that is what the country is.

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